Whether our stay in the championship lasts one year, four years, or even longer, it will certainly show the true character of the players that have come down with the relegation.
It’s almost inevitable that events of this season will get compared with the brilliant 2009/10 season – even if this is a dangerous and rash contrast to make. Having said that, if you look at that season, some real dressing room leaders began to emerge both on and off the pitch: Nolan, Harper, Colo, Jonas, Carroll, to name a few. Others fled the ship perhaps in part due to not having the character required, Habib Beye, Damien Duff and Oba Martins for example.
That is why it will be particularly interesting to see how the man in the number 16 shirt gets on this season. Sure, Rolando Aarons is a lot younger than the names I mentioned from our last Championship sabbatical were, but his career does feel at a slight crossroads heading into the new season.
He may have just signed a new five year deal at the club, which is the first positive step, but I really do feel this season could be make or break for Aarons. It will also be a real chance for us as fans to see what he is made of and how he deals with the challenges posed by the second tier.
The first time I saw Aarons live was, I suspect like most people, against Crystal Palace in a 3-3 draw in August 2014. He was absolutely electric that day, able to go past full-backs with ease and could go either way thanks to his exquisite balance that could rival some of the Olympic gymnasts.
Having frightening pace also helped of course, but it was also that he had a genuine end-product: a cross, a pass, a shot on target. Sat in the Leazes end that day I genuinely believed we had a real talent on our hands, potentially the best winger at the club since Nolberto Solano, albeit a very different type of player. He scored one and made another, one of the few positives to take away from the game, with the disappointment of conceding a last minute equaliser the main feeling.
He was also brilliant in the league cup win at Man City a few months later, destroying the City backline with his pace and scoring a very good goal. Yet since he burst onto the scene it just hasn’t really come together for Rolando on a consistent basis. He has had genuine bad luck with injuries (***See end of article), but equally for a player so reliant on pace, it is a worry to see the amount of hamstring niggles he has already picked up at this stage in his career.
This is why the Championship will be such a huge test for Aarons. He should have the ability to send defenders “to the shops” as my friend would say, the question is though, can he cope with the physicality of the league?
At only 20 years of age this will be his biggest test. I noticed, both going to the Huddersfield game and having also watched the Fulham game on TV, how referees at this level do genuinely give teams much more of a license to kick the stuffing out of the opponents. Aarons could be targeted and needs to be prepared for the fight. There’s not much point having flair if you can’t deal with taking a good kicking at times.
His first aim of course has to be simply to nail down his place in Rafa’s starting eleven. Getting hooked after 45 minutes against Huddersfield was not a great start, followed up with two consecutive cameo substitute appearances, but as poor as he was against the Terriers it obviously won’t be the last chance he gets.
I am pretty certain he will get the opportunities this season, particularly if Sissoko and Gouffran are sold before the deadline, potentially leaving us a little short in the wide areas. If he fails to take these chances or injuries halt his progress, it’s difficult to see how his Toon future will pan out, but he probably won’t get a better opportunity than now.
He may have to play the role of impact substitute at times but this could also earn him respect from Rafa, which could go a long way to securing his future here.
The championship can be gruelling but the talent is certainly there as we have seen before. If he can match this up with a solid attitude and stay fit, he could develop into a key player and one of the best wingers seen at St James Park for a long time.
It certainly feels like a career defining season for Rolando Aarons either way.
(***Talk about bad timing…I had just sent this over to The Mag when only hours later, Rolando Aarons is stretchered off against Cheltenham.
No news yet as to the seriousness of the injury but it looks a bad one.
It doesn’t though change what I have written above, Rolando has to show real determination to beat the latest setback and get back in the team.
Hopefully the injury is not too serious and he is back in a black and white shirt sooner rather than later. We have had players with talent blighted by injuries in the past, I hope he doesn’t become the latest.)
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